WASHINGTON — In seemingly contradictory voting-rights actions just a month before November's elections, the Supreme Court has allowed new Republican-inspired restrictions to remain in force in North Carolina and Ohio while blocking Wisconsin's voter identification law.
But there's a thread of consistency: In each case, the court appears to be seeking a short-term outcome that is the least disruptive for the voting process.
Another test of the court's outlook on voter ID laws could come from Texas, where the state is promising to appeal a ruling that struck down its strict law as unconstitutional racial discrimination.
None of the orders issued by the high court in recent days is a final ruling on the constitutionality of the laws. The orders are all about timing — whether the laws can be used in this year's elections — while the justices defer consideration of their validity.
In some ways, these disputes over the mechanics of voting are like others that crop up frequently just before elections as part of last-minute struggles by partisans to influence who can vote.
Republican lawmakers say the measures are needed to reduce voter fraud. Democrats contend they are thinly veiled attempts to keep eligible voters, many of them minorities supportive of Democrats, away from the polls.
Court rulings at various levels have also revealed partisan divisions. Most judges who voted to uphold the restrictive laws or allow them to take effect while the legal fights play out are Republican appointees. Most of those voting to strike down the laws or prevent them from being enforced were appointed by Democratic presidents. That is true even at the Supreme Court.
The high court has laid out one area of agreement: a general rule discouraging courts in general from letting potentially disruptive changes take effect at the last minute.
"The idea that courts should not impose a new set of voting rules just before an election is not a new one," said Richard Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California at Irvine law school.
This year, that idea appears to have led the Supreme Court to outcomes that on the surface appear to be inconsistent, Hasen said. One problem in reading too much into the orders is that they were issued with little explanation.
But in each case, the court took issue with lower court rulings that would have changed the rules too close to an election, Hasen said.
In Wisconsin, that meant that up to 300,000 voters might not have been able to obtain IDs in the few weeks before the election. The law had been on hold for months and the state itself had planned to spend eight months preparing the electorate for the new ID program, Hasen said. But when the federal appeals court in Chicago ruled last month that the law could be used in November, the state opted to go ahead.
Restrictions on early voting, same-day registration and provisional ballots in Ohio and North Carolina had been in effect until judges recently stopped them. The Supreme Court put those restrictions back in place.
In North Carolina, same-day registration won't be allowed during early voting, and Election Day ballots cast in the wrong precinct won't be counted. Ohio went ahead with cutbacks on early voting that included eliminating its so-called golden week during which voters could register and cast early ballots at the same time.
"One way of trying to make sense of what the court is doing is that it was trying to preserve the status quo. ... In Ohio and North Carolina, the laws actually had been in effect for a substantial period of time," said Dale Ho, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Voting Rights Project. The ACLU sued over the new laws in the three states.
The long-term prospects for challenges to these laws about voting access give voting rights advocates pause because of the Supreme Court's track record in this area in recent years.
"The truth is, the Roberts court has not been favorably disposed to voting rights," said Ryan Haygood, director of the political participation group at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
By a 5-4 vote in June 2013, the justices decided to remove from federal law the most effective tool for fighting voting discrimination. The court's ruling in a case from Shelby County, Alabama, eliminated the Justice Department's ability under the federal Voting Rights Act to identify and stop potentially discriminatory voting laws before they took effect.